Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Rural Cemetery of Worcester, MA

Wednesday, October 28, 2015
Worcester's Rural Cemetery
Loretta reports:

I am a huge fan of cemeteries, and Worcester, though a small city, has several. I didn’t know that the places I admired so much were known as “garden” or “rural” cemeteries until my husband educated me. I had assumed that cemeteries were always park-like places, even though I’d visited a number of the remaining old-style burial grounds—or parts of them—preserved next to churches in the middle of cities. Even when reading Dickens’s Bleak House, with its ghastly image of an overcrowded burial ground, stinking of decay, I didn’t quite get it. Understanding the history deeply enhanced (as history normally does) my appreciation of these places.

So naturally I was excited to attend a lecture* recently “Withdrawn from the Bustle of the World: Worcester’s First Garden Cemetery.” [Coincidentally, a few days ago I came upon a terrific article that explains the development of the garden cemetery. I’ll let you click on the article to get the background, while I offer a few tidbits from the lecture I attended.]

In November 1837, a local lawyer, Edward D. Bangs, gave what turned out to be a stunningly effective Lyceum lecture, pushing for Worcester to create a rural cemetery. Worcester had three burial places in the center of town, all horribly overcrowded, disrespected, and neglected. And kind of gross. One enterprising business used the cemetery next door for drying clothes. Nobody’s grave was permanent. In one case, when railroad needed the space where a burial ground was, the railroad got it.

Bangs's 1837 lecture turned out to be inspiring beyond what you’d imagine. Others in the city, especially those of a horticultural turn, had already caught the garden cemetery bug, and a couple of our prosperous, civic-minded citizens bought land with cemeteries in mind. In September 1838—yes, less than a year after the lecture—Worcester’s first rural cemetery (called, aptly, Rural Cemetery) was dedicated, on land donated by Daniel Waldo.

In their early days, before the advent of public parks, rural cemeteries served as parks as well as places of burial. There, not only could families finally own and tend to their plots, but members of the public could also get away from the bustle and noise of the city and enjoy the trees, flowers, shrubs, and walkways as well as their own thoughts.

Even today, though the city has grown up around it (enough to hide the cemetery—which is why so many people don’t know it exists), the Rural Cemetery remains a beautiful oasis, a place for walking, discovering, and contemplation.

*by William D. Wallace, Executive Director of the Worcester Historical Museum

Photographs by Walter M. Henritze III

Daniel Waldo


Karen Anne said...

Old fashioned cemeteries with their varied gravestones are so much nicer than the modern ones with flat metal markers for ease of grass maintenance.

Karen Anne said...

There's something wrong with the link to the development of garden cemeteries.

LorettaChase said...

Link fixed. Sorry about that, Karen Anne.

Anonymous said...

Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge and Watertown is delightfully landscaped with ponds and hills and dells, and is one of the best spring birding spots anywhere. Also interesting monument architecture, and the graves of many eminent 19th c. Massachusettsians.

Mount Feake Cemetery in Waltham for ducks, esp. in migration and winter.

Cathy Spencer said...

Thank you for an interesting post, Loretta. In Waterloo, Ontario, we have the Mount Hope cemetery which I think was established in the late 19th century and contains some beautiful statuary. As a matter of fact, I used a statue of a mourning lady which I had never seen anywhere else on the cover of my first mystery novel. I imagine that the statuary in cemeteries was also appreciated for its artistic qualities.

Lab Lisa said...

Another famous one is Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia.

greg6833 said...

Albany, NY has a nice rural cemetery, very park-like and peaceful. President Chester Arthur is buried there, and although his site could use some repair, the cemetery is a great place to spend an afternoon looking at the monuments/mausoleums/landscaping/etc. But I still wouldn't drink the water!

Two Nerdy History Girls. Design by Pocket